Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor

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A Year in Reading: Jonathan Dee


I don’t read a lot of contemporary memoirs, family memoirs especially, for the simple reason that almost all of them are offensively bad. They lurch between poles of self-pity and self-aggrandizement and exhibit a poor sense of their authors’ own proper placement in the landscape. So the greatest and most pleasant surprise of the past year for me was a memoir called Cheerful Money, written by Tad Friend, about the high-Wasp culture in the twilight of which he was raised, and the marks it left on the author and his charismatic relatives. Its tone, generous yet clear-eyed, seems unimprovable to me. And the book’s storytelling architecture is extraordinarily sly: rather than just setting down the tale of his family’s eccentricities curdling into affliction in the roughly linear way most Fall-of-the-House-of-X-stories propose, Friend causes past and present to coexist in something like the fruitfully associative way they do in therapy – no coincidence, as therapy turns out to be one of the book’s unexpected subjects.

What could be more bravely uncommercial, in this day and age, than a book-length elegy for American noblesse oblige? Cheerful Money reminds me of the woefully neglected fiction of Peter Taylor, in that it’s about the death of an unpopular way of life, a phenomenon easy to judge in hindsight but tragically disorienting to those living through it. The fact that there is something about Friend’s subject matter – all that squandered money, all those twee nicknames — that campaigns against being taken seriously only makes his achievement that much more impressive. It’s a book that deserves to become a standard of its much-abused form.

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